"Richard III is a study in evil." Discuss Richard's role as a tragic hero.
“RICHARD III IS A STUDY IN EVIL” DISCUSS RICHARD’S ROLE AS A TRAGIC HERO
Aristotle, a greek philosopher, claimed that tragedy was a depiction of the downfall of a noble person who has desirable qualities, through a combination of hubris, fate and the will of Gods. This is the basis for the argument of Richard’s role as a tragic hero.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays include a tragic hero. One example is Macbeth. Macbeth fits with Aristotle’s idea of a tragic hero as he was a noble person; he came from a rich family. Similar to Richard who also belongs to an aristocrat family – he was in the beginning the Duke of Gloucester and then later became King Richard III. So like Macbeth, Richard could be a tragic hero.
He does not have any desirable qualities. He is represented as being witty and charismatic. He is called the “formal Vice” and a quality of the Vice figure is wit and cruel humour. A popular character during the period in which Shakespeare was writing. The Vice had its origins in the morality plays of the sixteenth century, where medieval devils, who tempted mankind, were repulsive and dangerous, but also comic. He would also be witty and self-consciously theatrical. Examples of Richard’s wit and cruel humour can be seen throughout the play and is reinforced through his use of word play adding to the dramatic irony of the scenes e.g. when he tells Clarence that his “imprisonment shall not be long”. The audience, unlike Clarence know that this is a reference to Clarence’s foreseeable death which Richard explained to us in his earlier soliloquy. His witty nature, it could be argued, is a desirable quality but by the end of the paly his wit deserts him, for example, when he does not manage to convince Elizabeth to marry her daughter. So although he does have desirable qualities at the beginning of the play, they are not present throughout. And rather than being desirable qualities, wit is more of an admirable skill. To summarise, it can be argued that Richard could not be a tragic hero as he does not have any desirable qualities.
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It can be argued that Richard’s downfall was the will of the Gods. An aspect of this is Margaret’s curses. Her curses add to the dramatic tension because they act as prophesies – the audience know that what she says will come true. When Margaret prays for Richard to be punished for his treachery, she asks God to execute divine justice. So later, when Richard is killed in battle, we get the sense that God really has answered Margaret’s plea and that Richard’s death has been ordained by God. There is potential for dramatic irony as audience watch the curses come true. For an Elizabethan audience, divine power is real. She asks God so they believe the downfall of Richard is ordained by God. Stephen Greenblatt says “curses … touch the hidden order of things” and indicates that through cursers, God touches the hidden order of things. At the end after the appearance of the ghosts, Richard realises that “no creature loves” him but even now when he is afraid, the villain remains on the course he set himself when he began plotting at the start of the play. He recognises his evil, acknowledges the power of his conscience, but he is not really a changed man at the end of this speech. His failure to make peace with God shows us that the villain must be physically defeated, as he has now been defeated, mentally, by a dream. Richard therefore, due to the fact that his downfall was willed by Gods, cannot be a tragic hero.
It is also said that a tragic hero should have a flaw or make some mistake (hamartia) and must therefore undergo a change in fortune. Macbeth also had a flaw – his greediness. Similar to this, it could be argued that Richard also has a flaw. Richard’s character is emphasised by his evil nature; he even admits to this by stating “I am a villain”. The personal pronoun “I” linked with the proper noun “villain” clearly shows that he recognises his evil nature. But his evil nature was present in the play from the beginning as in his first soliloquy he states that he was “determined to prove a villain.” It could be argued that his evil nature should be ignored as he was evil because of the “dreadful circumstances which alone made such actions … possible” (Peter Hall). He has been “surrounded by guile and selfishness” since the moment he was born for example his 12 year old brother Rutland who was killed by Queen Margaret, it was such a terrible crime that even “tyrants themselves wept when it was reported.” This could be a justification of why he was evil from the beginning but does not change the fact he does not have a fatal flaw and therefore he could be a tragic hero.
Aristotle also said that the end of a tragedy should evoke feelings of pity and fear in the audience. He stated that tragedy purges or cleanses an audience of fear and pity. This is a process called catharsis. Pity is when the audience feel sorry for the tragic character and hate to see him suffer. They have sympathy for the character. And fear is when the viewer realises that if circumstances were different they would also be caught up in a web of tragic events and the viewer empathises with the character. There are many moments in Richard III when we feel pity for the protagonist. One such moment was when, after the appearance of the ghost, he realises that he was murderer and a villain. This is shown in his soliloquy: “What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am. Then fly! What, from myself? … I rather hate myself for hateful deeds committed by myself. I am a villain.” The use of the interrogative sentences help the audience successfully understand his fear of himself and therefore make them pity him.
The audience also feel fear in the play as we realise that Richard was born into a family where his actions were perhaps accepted. But on the other hand, he ultimately does not learn anything from it. Despite the acceptance of the fact that he is “a murderer,” it is difficult to think that he has received any punishment for his sins. Tragic heroes would often, at the end of the play, achieve some revelation or recognition (anagnorisis) about the human condition. He should recognise his mistake, grow through that and feel terrible remorse for it. But for Richard, he does not feel any remorse for his actions and learns no moral lesson and continues his behaviour the way it is.
Shakespearean characters like Othello and Lear undergo extreme torment, and learn the truth about themselves before they meet tragic ends. Richard knows himself too well. He is not a good man who just makes a fatal error of judgement. He is a self-confessed villain. He learns nothing and comes to no new understanding about himself, the nature of humanity or the world in which he lives. He dies unrepentant. So to conclude, he is not a tragic hero like other Shakespearean characters like Lear, Othello or Macbeth.